Before we begin: to address the Russian elephant in the room, yes, I am spelling ‘Kyiv’ like ‘Kiev.’ I am choosing to do this because ‘Kiev’ is what people are searching for. I use the spelling ‘Kyiv’ everywhere else, so please do not come at me!
To say that I was excited to visit Kiev, Ukraine, would be an understatement. I first visited Ukraine back in May 2018, and fell totally head over heels with its magical city of Lviv, and I also had heard great things about Odessa, and so after having so many friends rave to me about Kiev, I was intrigued to see what it had in store for me.
I arrived in Kiev on a beautiful sunny Monday. The taxi that I’d booked through my hostel was waiting for me, and although the driver couldn’t speak a word of English, he gave me a chocolate flapjack and made a great show of moving the dog basket from my seat and gesturing wildly for me to make myself comfortable. These small gestures would set the precedent for my time in Kiev – unexpected, a little weird, but definitely appreciated.
After dropping me off at my hostel, Kiev Central Station Hostel, he said goodbye and beamed. My time in Kiev had begun.
I was starving, and luckily, as soon as I checked into my hostel I met a couple of guys who asked me if I wanted to grab some food with them.
We headed to the bar that was to become my local in Kiev, Palata no. 6. We stayed there for some hours, chatting and getting to know one another. To eat, I had a squid bake with cheese and potatoes and washed it down with a bottle of Coke and two pints of beer. The total bill? 3.56GBP.
Ladies, gentlemen. Welcome to Ukraine.
After that, we headed back to the hostel for a quick shower and then went back out, this time to a craft beer place named Tsipa (guests of Kiev Central Station Hostel get half price drinks, what whaat) before heading back to Palata no.6 for more beers, and absinthe shots that resulted in our heads being set on fire. Nope, I’m not lying. You’ll just have to read my future blog posts to find out exactly what I mean by this.
ANYWAY. My point is that the first night in Ukraine was a success and I was all tucked up in bed by 2am, giving me plenty of time to sleep before my tour with Kiev Friendly Tours the following day!
Food, wine and culture with Kiev Friendly Tours
Kiev Friendly Tours is a start-up headed by Slava, a friendly and fun Ukrainian gal who worked in the travel industry for years, showcasing countries around the world before deciding to introduce travellers to the beauty of Kiev. Her tours are made to suit any budget, from the VIP custom tours where you can actually have a limo pick you up from your front door, to the more backpacker-friendly options (with tours at less than 20 euros).
I told Slava that I was most interested in food (duh), wine (duh) and history, and she put together a custom tour just for me!
After gulping down a quick coffee to keep my hangover at bay, I met Slava on Maidan Square and our tour commenced.
She had told me that we’d have some ‘snacks’ at the beginning of the tour, and so I was a bit apprehensive about the fact that I hadn’t eaten breakfast – I mean, I’m more than a snack gal, if you know what I mean.
However, I was about to discover that the next couple of hours were to include a lot more than just a simple snack, in more ways than one!
As we walked across Maidan Square, Slava explained that we would be eating in a ‘secret restaurant’ that requires a password and has no signposts or entrance signs. As we walked through a busy shopping centre before entering a lift, Slava tried teaching me the password, the pronunciation of which I managed to thoroughly butcher every time I tried to repeat it.
However, I didn’t get long to practice, as before I knew it, we were walking through a quiet bar towards an opening that you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t know it was there.
After hanging our coats in the cloakroom, we were faced with a wall full of 3D metal hands. Slava explained that there are actually 72 hands, each one representing a year that Ukraine was in the Soviet Union. After helping me to find the secret door hidden in the wall (yes, ANOTHER secret door), Slava led me into the restaurant, explaining that every single ingredient used in the foods is sourced in Ukraine and all of the alcohol is produced in Ukraine as well! I found that super cool, as usually I would never have the opportunity to sample Ukrainian wine (I bet most of you didn’t even know Ukraine produced wine!) so I was looking forward to sampling it!
First things first though, it was time for a welcome shot. Slava led us to a beautiful looking bar and we sat down in front of some shot glasses, already filled with a cherry red liquid. You have to remember at this point that I was a little fragile from the night before and I hadn’t eaten anything yet that day – it was almost as if Slava had known I’d need some ‘hair of the dog’ and responded accordingly!
After we drank the shot (which was lovely by the way), I felt a sudden jolt underneath me – we were moving! Without warning, our chairs had started to move, taking us further down the bar and into another part of the restaurant! After I regained my composure (I may have let out a little scream), I had to acknowledge that this was seriously bloody cool. I felt like I was Harry Potter venturing into Diagon Alley for the first time (although it has to be said that Slava is much prettier than Hagrid).
Next was what I’d been waiting for – FOOD. Slava led us to a table and asked me what I’d like to eat. I told her that I was happy with whatever she saw fit, and she proceeded to order a selection of traditional Ukrainian dishes and a glass of semi-dry white wine for me (which was up there with my favourite white wine ever, from Berat in Albania).
Almost in no time at all, our food arrived, and let me tell you, The Last Barricade gets a 10/10 for presentation. My main dish was a chicken kiev (yes – I had a kiev in Kiev!) with creamy mashed potatoes infused with truffle, as well as a smattering of garden peas. Slicing into the kiev, I couldnt believe how tender the meat was, and taking a bite, I was delighted to find that it tasted as delicous as it looked, the garlic butter inside complimenting the mashed potatoes perfectly.
The portion size was actually deceptively large, but I made sure to leave room to try the other dishes that Slava had ordered for us.
The first was pate made from fois gras, which was absolutely delicious and served with thick crusty bread, and the latter was something I’d never encountered before. Forshmak is a kind of salty fish paste that the creatives over at The Last Barricade shape into ice cream shaped balls and serve in small cones, just like ice cream cones!
Slava ate hers just like an ice cream, but I chose to spread mine over bread and it was SO tasty.
When my jeans actually felt as though they were about to pop, I forced myself to stop.
‘You didn’t like it?!’ Slava says.
‘I can’t do anymore, I’m going to die!’ I laughed, feeling as though if I didn’t stand up and start walking right away, I would melt into the chair and not move for the rest of the day.
Luckily for me, the next stop involved a little more physical activity as we were headed to Lavra, also known as Kiev Monastery of the Caves. Lavra is an Orthodox Christian Monastery that is home to 22 churches. Not only is the whole site a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it remains an active monastery, with over 100 monks currently in residence.
As Slava explained the history of Lavra to me, we ambled slowly around the churches and cathedrals, stopping to admire the huge bell tower, as well as going inside a couple of the churches and admiring the interior. I’d never been inside an Orthodox church before, so it was especially interesting to me that there are no seats in Orthodox churches – everybody stands up to worship!
We had planned to go into the labyrinthian caves, but unfortunately we arrived a little too late as the caves were closed for the day.
‘Don’t worry, I will show you something else,’ Slava said, leading me out of the Lavra grounds and taking me on a short walk to something else entirely – the Motherland monument.
The Motherland monument, or Rodina Mat, is just a short walk away from the Lavra. To get to it, we walked through a sheltered area/tunnel with various statues depicting scenes of war, including famine victims, wives mourning their husbands, and even an old woman clutching a grenade!
On top of the tunnel is the ‘Eternal Flame,’ something that used to burn continuously, but now only burns on special days because it uses too much energy and is thus too expensive to keep burning. There are also various tanks and cannons scattered around as a nod to various wars and conflicts that have taken place over the years.
However, what we were there to see was the Motherland monument. Standing at a whopping 102 metres tall and weighing 560 tonnes, the Motherland statue is 3 metres taller than the Statue of Liberty, and it really is a sight to behold. The bottom of the monument is actually home to a museum all about WW2, and for an additional fee, you can ride a lift all the way to the top of the statue, before climbing up a ladder and onto the observation deck just behind the shield of the statue.
An interesting thing to note about the shield is that it still bears the hammer and sickle from communist times. In 2005, a law was passed outlawing Soviet and communist symbols, but the law holds WW2 monuments exempt from this, and so the hammer and sickle remains, despite many residents of Kiev believing that it should be removed.
After admiring the statue and the panoramic views of Kiev, it was time to leave. I’d had a great day with Slava but we were both spent – the tour had run for an hour longer than it was supposed to, and Slava had a baby to get home to!
As I sat in my Uber home, I reflected on the day. It as a shame that we couldn’t have seen inside the caves, but I’d had a great time nonetheless. The Last Barricade was fantastic (I actually ended up going back later in the week), and as I always say, it’s always better to see things with a guide because you learn so much more than if you simply explored alone.
Not only did I learn a lot on this tour, but Slava’s personality combined with her extensive experience in the tourism industry means that she creates the perfect balance of information and fun, ensuring that the day is not all numbers and facts, as is the case with some tour guides.
To find out more about Slava and Kiev Friendly Tours, please find their website here and their Facebook page here.
This is the point in the article where I tell you that I was a guest of Kiev Friendly Tours. This means that I have not been paid to write this post, but I did attend the tour for free. That said, you guys know that I am not shy in voicing my opinions on this blog, and so you can rest assured that everything I’ve said here is true. I also wouldn’t recommend something that I didn’t think was a truly worthwhile experience.
Honestly, yes, some of the tours that Kiev Friendly offers are kinda expensive for a backpacker’s budget. That said, there are ample opportunities to reduce the costs associated, such as choosing a tour without a car or splitting the cost between 3 or 4 people (of course, hiring a guide for a 1-on-1 experience is going to be more expensive than attending the tour with friends).
If you’re interested in what else I got up to during my 5 days in Kiev, then be sure to check back as there are definitely more posts coming!
Have you ever been to Kiev? What did you think? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!